We've all had those lazy Sundays when the couch's gravitational pull is too strong to escape — but as binge watching becomes a bigger part of the cultural landscape, some people are finding it even harder to break free.
There's not a lot of hard clinical data on binge watching to date. Most psychologists and researchers haven't had time to do long-term surveys. But as with any new form of obsessive entertainment, there's a schism forming among researchers.
Some experts, like Dr. Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist and faculty member at California's Fielding Graduate University, say they see benefits in the hobby — and take issue with the term "binge watching."
"What I think is very interesting about this phenomenon is we call it 'binge watching,' which is a social pejorative," she says."We don't say we're binge reading if we tuck ourselves away with a Dickens novel, but we call it binge watching because we couldn't do this before. ... There are actually lots of positives in watching media. It allows you to experience emotions, it can be cathartic and it allow you to see models of different sorts of behaviors."
But the number of experts and studies arguing the opposite position is bigger, as is often the case in the early days of an emerging trend. And they can be fairly alarming. Here's a look at some of the reported downsides facing people who take binge watching too far.
A 2015 University of Texas study noted that loneliness and depression were common factors in any sort of binge behavior — including binge watching. Ultimately, researchers said, the more lonely and depressed people are, the more likely they are to binge watch TV, in hopes that doing so would help them avoid other negative feelings in and about their lives.
In the 1990s, says David Spiegelhalter, a professor and statistician at Cambridge University, couples had sex about five times per month. Today it's down to three — and Spiegelhalter says binge watching is partially to blame. (In fairness, he also points to people's obsessions with their phones and other digital distractions.) A seeming combination of obsessive watching of shows and the ensuing lack of sleep results in a lowered libido.
In 2015, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published the results of a 14-year study, one of the very few long-term looks at binge watching, with some startling results. Researchers found that participants who watched three to four hours of television per day increased the odds of contracting a chronic disease by 15 percent, compared to people who watched less than an hour of TV per day. The National Cancer Institute studied over 221,000 people between the ages of 50 to 71 years old for the report. Researchers noted that this could be tied to a lack of exercise.
Waiting for a series to finish the season before you start watching so that you can watch it marathon-style? While you'll be able to avoid the agony of cliffhangers and, in many cases, avoid commercial breaks, you'll miss out on some of the social benefits of watching live. Shows like "Game of Thrones" or "The Walking Dead" are water-cooler conversation pieces — and they're all over social media. By not watching, you're not able to take part in those conversations (or if you do, you're certain to have major plot twists spoiled, ruining the fun).
When we binge, we not only tend to remain sedentary, we also often snack. And researchers at Harvard say extended binge watching appears to encourage that behavior. "There's convincing evidence in adults that the more television they watch, the more likely they are to gain weight or become overweight or obese," Lilian Cheung, director of health promotion & communication at Harvard School of Public Health, told NPR.
Even if you're not staying up until all hours of the night watching "Stranger Things" or some other program, the screen time you're exposing yourself to could be impacting your ability to get a good night's sleep. Whether it's TVs, cell phones or computer screens, engaging with them before you call it a night increases electrical activity in your brain and could release a stress hormone that makes it harder to go to sleep. The light from those screens has also been shown to delay the release of melatonin, which helps you sleep.
Psychologists are finding that indulging in an all-you-can-watch buffet might actually be reducing the pleasure you get from a show. Hedonic adaptation essentially means you get used to something new and its appeal is lessened. Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, also notes that by denying yourself the anticipation that comes with a break between shows, you're cutting down on the excitement that surrounds the narrative.